New York loses biggest Giant of them all

Wellington Timothy Mara, the patriarchal Hall of Fame owner of the Giants whose life paralleled the growth of the NFL into a national institution, died Oct. 25 from cancer at his home in Rye, N.Y. He was 89.

By John Altavilla "The NFL can never be the same," Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi said. "He saw the first game ever played by this franchise. He shaped nearly every rule and philosophy we have in our league today. Most of all, he was the moral conscience of the NFL."

Mara was surrounded by his wife, Ann, his 11 children and their spouses and many of his 40 grandchildren when he passed away at 9:26 a.m.

Mara, elected to the Hall of Fame in 1997, suffered from skin cancer for most of the last quarter-century, enduring many surgeries prior to May 10 when cancerous lymph nodes were removed.

He had been in failing health since the surgery, which prevented him from both attending training camp in Albany – one of his favorite pastimes – or any games this season. He did make a brief appearance at the team's mini-camp in June, defying doctor's orders that he convalesce.

Mara, the son of an Irish bookmaker who bought the Giants for $500 in 1925, grew to be a powerful icon in the NFL, influential when it came to setting policy and direction.

"The NFL would not be the NFL that it grew into without Wellington's influence," said Frank Gifford, the great Giants Hall of Fame halfback. "When the league got its first television contract, he realized it had to be equally distributed so everybody could be competitive. Even though the Giants had the largest television market, he said the money should be distributed equally. They knew it was better for football and the future of football by sharing the money equally."

But Mara was also a benevolent soul, especially so late in life. His presence on the sidelines during practice – sitting on a folding chair or golf cart – or the locker room – always in a tie and jacket – had long been considered a calming influence.

"One of the things I miss the most this year is [not] seeing him at every practice, sitting on that golf chair he always had," Giants halfback Tiki Barber said. "There was always a certain level of accountability, even in practice, because we always knew he was watching us. And after games, you'd walk into the locker room and he'd be standing right there to shake your hand, win or lose. That was one of the true moving feelings about playing for the Giants, having your accountability given to you as soon as you walked into that locker room. We'll miss that for years to come."

What was certain was that Mara's players and coaches loved him.

Following their come-from-behind 24-23 victory over the Broncos Oct. 23, the Giants, told before the game of Mara's failing health by coach Tom Coughlin, formed a tight circle in the locker room and chanted his nickname, "Duke, Duke, Duke" in tribute.

"My father told me the name came from the Duke of Wellington," Mara once said. "My father said the Duke of Wellington was a great fighting Irishman. The name didn't bother me. I preferred it to Wellington."

Although he spent many years as the team's general manager, Mara steadfastly opposed interfering with the work of his staff once he passed the responsibility on to the late George Young and Accorsi.

As a result, he spoke formally to his players only very occasionally when he felt his input was required. One example came after a disappointing 24-7 loss to Buffalo at Giants Stadium in 2003, the third of what morphed into an eight-game losing streak that ended Jim Fassel's seven-year reign as coach.

"The crowd is our customers," Mara said of the booing so prevalent that day. "When they leave, it's the same as someone calling up or writing and saying you're not doing what it is I want you to do. I'm very dissatisfied. The message comes across loud and clear. All it tells me is that we need to improve the product. And how we go about that is something we will discuss."

Still, his basic philosophy was one of patience.

"He was a man of extraordinary character, integrity and decency," said Ravens owner Art Modell, Mara's friend of 45 years. "He was a kind man who rarely spoke in anger, never used profanity, and was never untoward anyone. Personally, this is very, very sad . . .We have lost a giant."

Mara was not particularly demonstrative, but very set in his ways and firm in his thoughts. A devout Catholic, club policy often mirrored his personal views, which is why the Giants do not have cheerleaders.

He never purposely brought attention to himself or considered himself so exceptional that others should defer to him.

"His sense of pride was tremendous," said Phil Simms, the former Giants quarterback.

"He would point out your mistakes, but he's always been more of a teacher by example than words,'' John Mara once said.

Early start

Wellington Mara was born Aug. 14, 1916 in New York City. He graduated from Loyola High School before attending Fordham, where he was a classmate of Vince Lombardi and earned his degree in 1937. His older brother, Jack, also attended Fordham, but it was Wellington who showed the most interest in learning the family business of football from his father, Tim.

Wellington was just 9 when the Giants played their first game that October against the Frankford Yellow Jackets, a 14-0 loss. But the game made a big impression.

"My father wanted me to go to law school because my brother Jack had gone,'' Mara said. "After I had graduated from college I asked my father if I could take a year off [before law school] and work with the football team, since I had skipped a year ahead when I was in grammar school. Twelve years later he said, ‘I guess you're not going to law school.'

"When I first was around the team, it was like they were all my big brothers, then my contemporaries. Pretty soon, I was like their father. Now I'm their grandfather."

Wellington would walk the sidelines alongside his father at the Polo Grounds, where the team played its home games until moving to Yankee Stadium in 1956, often shivering in the cold. It was because of that one of the time-tested traditions of the team was born.

Because of the objections of Wellington's mother, concerned about her son's susceptibility to colds, his father moved the team to the sideline where the sun routinely shined in early afternoon. And to this day, Giants teams stand on the sunniest sideline of Giants Stadium.

He'd also tell stories of having Giants tickets in his pockets when he went to school to give to his friends and teachers.

In 1930, Tim Mara turned ownership of the franchise over to Jack and Wellington, who was just 14 at the time, primarily to protect the team from creditors. Jack Mara served as club's president until his death in 1965 at which time his son, Tim, took over.

"When Jack died, I had to try to keep one foot in each door, and I don't think I did a very good job of it," Mara said.

As a result the relationship between the Mara cousins was often acrimonious. They feuded for more than a decade, especially during the 18-year period (1963-81) during which the Giants failed to make the playoffs. At one point in 1987 it got so bad Wellington had Venetian blinds installed between the two owners' luxury suites. Tim responded by erecting wood paneling. The two owners hosted separate parties after the Giants won the Super Bowl in 1986, and again when the Giants won in 1990.

Ultimately, it was Tim Mara's cancer diagnosis in 1991 that prompted him to sell his half-interest in the team. Tisch bought Tim's 50 percent stake for $150 million.

"Wellington's always been a man of his word,'' Tisch said at time. "He's always been someone who was primarily concerned with the game. He's 100 percent about what's right for the league, what's right for the fans. He worries that the fans get what they're entitled to, that they are taken care of."

Climb to the top

Mara was involved in just about every aspect of the team. His first job was as a ball boy at training camp, a tradition many of his sons and grandsons have carried on.

"My father would take me to training camp when I was 5 or 6,'' John Mara said. "But the first game I can really visualize was the 1962 championship game at Yankee Stadium, when we lost to Green Bay. I remember sitting in the baseball press box, so cold, sitting next to my mother and Elston Howard [the Yankees catcher], which impressed me more than the game. And we'd go to the Saturday practices before home games, when I wander around Yankee Stadium. That was big thrill at the time.''

Even as a college student, Mara made a significant contribution when he drafted and signed future Hall of Famer Tuffy Leemans in 1936.

"If I'm remembered for nothing else, I'd like to be remembered for discovering Tuffy Leemans," Mara once said.

Eventually he moved up the ladder to scouting and the front office, where he served as general manager during the 1950s and 1960s. During his life the Giants won 14 divisional titles and four championships, including two Super Bowls.

Mara also made trades that brought stars like Y.A. Tittle, Andy Robustelli and Del Shofner to New York. His drafting of Gifford and Roosevelt Brown, another future Hall of Famer, further molded the Giants into a dominant team.

Wellington Mara's only time away from the team was during World War II when he served in both the Atlantic and Pacific corridors with the Navy, finally leaving with the rank of Lieutenant Commander.

Later in life Mara served the NFL on many ownership committees. From 1971-77 he was Chairman of the Executive Committee of the NFL's Management Council, the league's labor arm. He was voted president of the NFC in 1984, succeeding George Halas after his death. It was primarily upon his suggestion that NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue opted to cancel league games following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001.

"Wellington Mara represented the heart and soul of the NFL," Tagliabue said. "He was a man of deep conviction who stood as a beacon of integrity. His passions were many – his family and faith, the Giants, the NFL, and his community. He was an unparalleled leader in many different arenas. When Well Mara stood to speak at a league meeting, the room would become silent with anticipation because all of us knew we were going to hear profound insights born of eight decades of league experience."

Three of Wellington Mara's sons, John, Christopher and Frank, work in the team's front office. John Mara is expected to succeed his father as president and co-chief executive officer. Ironically, his sons will now preside over the construction of a new stadium in the Meadowlands that will be home to the Giants and Jets and is scheduled to open in 2009.

Most of all, Mara was a humble man who hated the limelight. Even his election to the Hall of Fame somewhat embarrassed him.

"The most uncomfortable I've ever seen him was at his induction into the [Pro Football] Hall of Fame [in 1997],'' John Mara said. "The night before, there was a banquet and each of the inductees were introduced to a crowd of a couple of thousand people. They were all asked to walk down this long platform onto a big stage. The public address announcer that night was Michael Buffer [the boxing announcer]. And all of a sudden [Buffer] says, ‘Now, ladies and gentlemen, let's greet WELLLLLLLLLLLLLLLINGTON MARRRRRRRRA!'

"My dad walked out, his hand covering his face, muttering something like, ‘Oh, God, no.' He couldn't wait for it to end.''

That's how many will remember a man who sought so little credit for helping shape one of the nation's beloved institutions.

"There were three things in Mr. Mara's life: family, religion and the Giants," Fassel said. "His influence was evident throughout the Giants' organization. He set an example of the right way to live and to treat people with respect. He was a gentle soul in a tough business. But, he was also a man's man, tough when he had to be."

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